Week 1 of NFL football is officially here! With the plethora of games on Sunday, let's dive into one specifically as the Carolina Panthers will take on the Atlanta Falcons. Both teams are coming off down years. Carolina finished second in the NFC South with a record of 7-10, and Atlanta finished fourth in the division with a record of 7-10. The Panthers have started a rebuild by bringing in a new head coach, Frank Reich. Reich was the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts from 2018-2022 and was hired by the Panthers near the end of January to be their head coach. Atlanta has loaded their offense and defense with weapons as they will look to make the playoffs for the first time under head coach Arthur Smith.
The big storylines in this game are quarterbacks and rookies. Carolina will send out 2023 1st-overall pick Bryce Young as their signal caller, and Desmond Ridder will get the start for Atlanta. Young will make his NFL debut, while Ridder will appear in his fifth pro game, as he started in four in his rookie year. In other rookie news, Bijan Robinson, the Falcon's 1st-round pick in this season's draft, will make his NFL debut on Sunday, as he is listed as RB1 on the Falcon's depth chart. Atlanta will be looking for strong performances from both Ridder and Robinson to top an NFC South rival, and both teams would definitely like to start the new season with a win, but more importantly, a divisional win.
Date: Sunday, September 10, 2023
Start Time: 1pmET/10amPT
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Stadium: Mercedez-Benz Stadium
TV Info: FOX
Key Players- Offense
Kyle Pitts, Falcons TE
Atlanta based their play around running the ball last season as they finished third in rushing yards, and seven of those games were without pro-bowl tight end Kyle Pitts. Pitts posted 1,026 yards in his rookie campaign and only has three touchdowns in his career. I believe this season will be a breakout season for PIitts, as he has shown flashes of being a top tight end in the league. With Atlanta's heavy run offensive, I expect the passing game to open up, especially to the 6'6'' tight end. Desmond Ridder was my other choice for the Falcons' offensive key player of the week; however, I can see Pitts being more of a threat to the Panthers as they try to stop the run and contain Pitts simultaneously.
Miles Sanders, Panthers RB
With DJ Chark being ruled out and Adam Theilen listed as questionable for Sunday's matchup, I expect the Panthers to rely heavily on their rushing attack, which includes newly acquired Miles Sanders. Sanders was a good running back for the Philadelphia Eagles last season, as he ran for 1,269 yards and scored 11 times on the ground. Sanders could be a real threat to the Falcon's defense come Sunday, especially if he sees over 15 touches.
Key Players- Defense
Calais Cambell, Falcons DL
How do you stop a rookie quarterback? Hit him. Hit him hard. That's precisely why Atlanta acquired the veteran pass rusher in the offseason. The 15-year veteran is coming into the season with 99.0 career sacks, so why not get number 100 on the first week of the new season? Well, that could be possible, as Bryce Young was sacked three times in each of his short pre-season appearances. Cambell acquired 5.5 sacks and 14 QB hits a year ago. So, with a bit of motivation to get sack number 100 and the Panthers o-line that has been struggling, look out for #98 in black on Sunday.
Brian Burns, Panthers LB
Protecting Ridder will be a must for the Falcons' o-line, which will include shutting down Carolina's top pass rusher Brian Burns. Burnes made the Pro Bowl last year while recording 12.5 sacks and 22 QB hits. Burns only had one bag in the two games versus Atlanta a year ago. Hopefully, the game plan remains the same against Burns, but the Panther's edge-rusher could quickly get in the way of a Falcons win.
Points Spread: CAR +3.5 (-110)|ATL -3.5 (-110)
Moneyline: CAR (+166)|ATL (-198)
Over/Under: O 39.5 (-115) | U 39.5 (-105)
Lines via FanDuel as of Friday, September 8
I decided not to include Bijan Robinson and Bryce Young in my "Key Players" due to them making their pro-debut. Obviously, everyone will be keeping an eye on the two first-round picks. The Atlanta offense that includes Robinson will be entertaining to watch on Sunday. As I stated above, ATL ranked third in rushing yards a year ago. Now, with the addition of Robinson to complement Tyler Allgeier, the Falcons can have the most dangerous rushing attack in the league. Also, the Panthers will have to find Drake London on the field as well, who's entering his sophomore season as ATL's number-one receiver. Another weapon the Falcons will feature is Cordarrelle Patterson (as of 9/8, is "questionable" for Sunday), who's listed as "Joker" on the Falcons Depth Chart. This means that Patterson can play anywhere on the field for the Falcons; he could be a receiver on one play and be at the tight end position on another. Head coach Arthur Smith described the position a little more: "Patterson will float from room to room for game prep, even meeting with OL coach Dwayne Ledford and himself for film and game planning session." I would expect the Falcons to feature a decent amount of runs, with most of the carries going to Robinson and Allgeier to keep the pressure down on Ridder as much as possible. Still, I would like to see Ridder make some good quality completions and ATL show more of a balanced attack.
On the defensive side, I think the Falcons will show up on Sunday and give Bryce Young a nice NFL welcome. Jesse Bates will also be making his Falcons debut on Sunday, and he could have a field day if Adam Theilen is ruled out along with DJ Chark. However, what has shot the Falcons in the foot in prior years is their pass rush. If ATL can't get to the quarterback and/or make tackles behind the line of scrimmage, it could make for a really long day for the Dirty Bird's secondary, featuring all-pro cornerback AJ Terrel. I am very excited to see what the revamped defense looks like after hiring defensive coordinator Ryan Neilsen, who made the Saints pass rush one of the best in the league.
With all that said, I believe the Falcons rushing attack will be too much to handle for the Panthers' defense, and the Falcons will make things tough for rookie quarterback Bryce Young. And that brings me to my final score prediction.
Prediction: ATL-24, CAR-10
(Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)